When Thomas Starr King first walked to the pulpit
of the San Francisco Unitarian Church in 1860, the eyes
of the congregation turned to this small, frail man.
Many asked, "Could this youthful person with his
beardless, boyish face be the celebrated preacher from
King laughed. "Though I weigh only 120 pounds,"
he said, "when I’m mad, I weigh a ton."
That fiery passion would be King’s stock in trade during
his years in California, from 1860 to 1864. Abraham
Lincoln said he believed the Rev. Thomas Starr King
was the person most responsible for keeping California
in the Union during the early days of the Civil War.
King’s reputation as a noted orator had led the San
Francisco congregation to ask him to come west, with
little hope he would agree. During his 11 years as minister
of Boston’s Hollis Street Unitarian Church, King increased
the congregation to five times its original size and
pulled the church out of bankruptcy. Ralph Waldo Emerson,
noted essayist and poet, said after hearing one of King’s
sermons, "That is preaching!" Churches in
Chicago and Brooklyn sought King as their minister,
but this popular Boston pastor rejected them. San Francisco,
he decided, offered the greatest challenge.
California was headed into a crisis. At hand was a
showdown between the free states of the Union and the
slave states. California’s governor and most members
of the state legislature were sympathetic to the Confederacy.
The only effective voice against slavery, Sen. David
C. Broderick, had been killed in a duel the year before.
The San Francisco congregation’s initial disappointment
about King’s slender, boyish appearance soon gave way
to wonder, then delight at his rich, golden voice. Not
only did King establish his reputation as an orator
and preacher that first Sunday in San Francisco, but
the news soon spread statewide, attracting worshipers
from Stockton and Sacramento.
Less than a month after King arrived in California,
the Republican National Convention met in Chicago and
nominated Abraham Lincoln as its presidential candidate.
In the following election, Lincoln carried California
by only 711 votes.
Southern states soon abandoned the Union. The crucial
question on the minds of many Americans was: Would California
join them and deliver the state’s immense natural resources
into the hands of Confederate President Jefferson Davis?
Support for secession was strong in southern California,
where the Confederate flag had flown over Los Angeles’s
main plaza on the Fourth of July.
At that time the U.S. Congress was so convinced of
a secessionist plot that it required Easterners to secure
passports for travel to California. Justifying Congress’
fears was a secret paramilitary California secessionist
organization of about 16,000 members, called the Knights
of the Golden Circle.
On George Washington’s birthday in 1861, King fired
an opening salvo in support of his country. He spoke
for two hours to over a thousand people about how they
should remember Washington by preserving the Union.
"I pitched into Secession, Concession and (John
C.) Calhoun (former U.S. vice president), right and
left, and made the Southerners applaud," King recalled.
"I pledged California to a Northern Republic and
to a flag that should have no treacherous threads of
cotton in its warp, and the audience came down in thunder.
At the close it was announced that I would repeat it
the next night, and they gave me three rounds of cheers."
Speaking up and down the state, King visited rugged
mining camps and said he never knew the exhilaration
of public oratory until he faced a front row of men
armed with Bowie knives and revolvers. His friend, Edward
Everett Hale, who made a similar contribution to saving
the Union through his moving story, "The Man Without
a Country," said, "Starr King was an orator
no one could silence and no one could answer."
King covered his pulpit with an American flag and ended
all his sermons with "God bless the president of
the United States and all who serve with him the cause
of a common country." At one mass rally in San
Francisco, 40,000 turned out to hear him speak. A group
of Americans living in Victoria, B.C., sent him $1,000
for his work to preserve the Union. King was beginning
to turn the tide.
In 1861, he threw himself into the gubernatorial campaign
of his parishioner, Leland Stanford. King and author
Bret Harte often accompanied Stanford on speaking tours.
Stanford won an overwhelming victory and King sighed
"What a privilege it is to be an American!"
he said. "What a year to live in! Worth all other
times ever known in our history or any other!"
The battle to keep California in the Union won, King
now turned to the needs of its soldiers. The Union Army
lacked provisions and medical personnel. Much of its
food was rotting because of spoiled goods sold to the
Army by war profiteers. Soldiers lacked sheets and blankets,
and disease took a greater toll than Confederate bullets.
In response, the Rev. H.W. Bellows of New York organized
the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a forerunner of the American
Red Cross. Starr King immediately pitched in to help.
Out of $4.8 million the commission raised throughout
the U.S., King raised $1.25 million in California. About
$200,000 came from San Francisco, a figure all the more
impressive because of a series of natural disasters
in the state, including a massive flood that turned
the Sacramento-San Joaquín Valley into a vast lake and
a drought that wiped out the wheat crop.
Now King found himself raising funds for flood and
drought relief. He also carved out time to work for
the rights of San Francisco’s African Americans and
"We know," said Edward Everett Hale of King,
"that here is a heart as large as the world, so
that you can not make it understand that it should hold
back from any service to be rendered to any human being."
Because of King’s success in patriotic and charitable
causes, powerful friends encouraged him to run for the
U.S. Senate. But he refused, saying he feared it would
lead to political compromise and impair his ability
to speak forthrightly. "I would rather," he
said, "swim to Australia."
Relaxation and joy came from exploring California’s
wilderness. He was among the first 100 Euro-Americans
to visit Lake Tahoe. To him, the blue lake and green
pines seemed in harmony with the deepest religion of
Yosemite Valley and its giant trees gave him special
delight. Back in New England he enjoyed exploring the
White Hills of New Hampshire and wrote a book about
them, "The White Hills—Their Legend, Landscape
On entering California’s great valley, he said, "The
Ninth Symphony (by Beethoven) is the Yosemite of music!
Great is granite and the Yosemite is its prophet!"
He climbed above the falls, attracted by a dome of granite
towering 13,600 feet over the valley. Today it bears
his name, Mt. Starr King.
Despite his many commitments in California, King always
put his church first. When he arrived in San Francisco
in 1860, the congregation struggled with a $30,000 debt.
Within the first year, King managed to raise the funds
to pay it off. Now he turned his attention to an expanding
congregation in a too-small church. In October 1862,
he set an $80,000 fundraising goal. By December of that
year, the cornerstone of a new church was laid. In January
1864, King and his congregation celebrated the completion
of the new building at 133 Geary street, adjacent to present-day Union Square. (The congregation eventually relocated its church again in 1889 to the corner of Franklin and Starr
King streets in San Francisco, where the First
Unitarian Universalist Society church stands
His congregation now prosperous, the Union Army driving
to victory and the Sanitary Commission on solid footing,
King decided to take a much-needed sabbatical. He planned
to rest, travel and write a book about the Sierras.
But King’s Herculean efforts had taken a toll. Only
devotion to what he considered God’s will and "being
mad" kept him going. On Feb. 28, 1864, he came
down with diphtheria, then pneumonia. A few days later
his doctor told him he had only a half-hour to live.
King glanced at a calendar.
"Today is the fourth of March," he said.
"Sad news will go over the wire today."
He dictated his will and turned to his wife. "Do
not weep for me," he said. "I know it is all
right. I wish I could make you feel so, I wish I could
describe my feelings. It is strange. I see all the privileges
and greatness of the future. It already looks grand,
beautiful. Tell them I went lovingly, trustfully, peacefully."
Across San Francisco, flags dropped to half-mast. The
state legislature in Sacramento adjourned for three
days of mourning after passing a resolution stating
that King had been a "tower of strength to the
cause of his country."
As King lay in state, wrapped in an American flag,
a military honor guard stood by his casket. Twenty thousand
people came to his church to pay tribute. Cannons boomed
a memorial tribute and Bret Harte composed a eulogy,
A Star? There’s nothing strange in that.
No, nothing; but above the thicket
Somehow it seemed to me that God
Somewhere had just relieved a picket.
King’s body was buried in the front lawn of his newly
completed church, where it remains today.
In 1913, the state legislature voted Thomas Starr King
and Father Junipero Serra, the Catholic missionary,
as California’s two greatest heroes and appropriated
funds for King’s statue at the U.S. Capitol. In the
1960s, the state designated King’s church and tomb as
a historical monument.
In addition to Yosemite’s granite mountain, one of
the great trees within the park that King admired was
also given his name. Another mountain in the White Hills
of New Hampshire is known as Mt. Starr King, and several
schools throughout California bear his name.
In 1941, the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry
changed its name to Starr King School for the Ministry
to honor a man of eloquence, commitment and vision.
Adapted from an article written by William H. Wingfield
for Real West Magazine, August 1972.
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